One Persons Penal Reformer Another Ones Terror’.

November 2007 a week after receiving a twelve year sentence I asked an HMP Brixton PO “Who’s going to be there?”
The HMP Brixton PO replied “Captains of Industry and Penal Reformers.”
I replied reluctantly “Oh, ok then if I must.”

Two weeks later I was not on the list for my usual IT class and started to give off stink to the officer at the desk. The SO appeared and informed me that I’d be going to the chapel later for “that thing you’d agreed to do with the PO.” I’d forgotten all about the Chapel. About an hour later an officer came and collected me and took me over to the Chapel. I’d never been in a Chapel before. The first of many firsts discovered during my six years int nick.

There were half a dozen officers standing in and around the doorway. I must have looked totally bewildered and indeed I was. The place was packed with human beings of both sexes in suits, dresses and most bewildering of all – they were smiling and laughing. Must be on the communion wine I thought. I was greeted by a lovely lady with dark hair whose presence and greeting assured me that I was safe and all would be well. The Lady asked me my name and I dared to ask hers as this was not a normal mode of communication allowed in HMP. “I’m Frances” she replied “can I get you a cup of coffee?”

Well, now! I now knew that this  little get together was altogether, a bit strange, but I accepted and Frances asked me to come and join a group situated at one of the many tables scattered around the chapel. If you haven’t yet guessed the Lady was Frances Crook.

At that table I met Lord Carlisle, Pauline Campbell and another lady who was a barrister. It pains me that I can’t remember the ladies name as she did write to me after but I’ve lost the letter. Lord Carlisle asked me how easy it was to get drugs in prison. I explained that I could be back by the end of the meeting with whatever he wanted – if not sooner. His incredulous look will never leave me. I spoke with his daughter later; another lovely person who listened intently. The late Pauline Campbell is and was the lady who will always be in my heart and was indeed the person who is responsible for much of my drive whenever I feel the tides of despondency kicking in. Sarah Campbell, Pauline’s daughter committed suicide at HMP Style in January 2003. Pauline committed suicide in May 2008 – Obituary by Eric Allison Link – Pauline Campbell – Tireless crusader against prison deaths.


I had received a letter from Pauline a few weeks before her death and replied with encouragement as the last letter was of a person feeling like “what’s the bloody point.” By then I was in HMP Rye Hill and found out via the newspapers of Pauline’s death. It was then I got mad. The more I read, the more I learned, the madder I got. The more I experienced of prison life the more I knew I was on a mission. These women, well when I say women Sarah was eighteen, and their story will never leave me – ever. It was then that I embarked on the re-education/re-invention of Michael Irwin.

Fast forward to my first home leave June 2012. I’m met at the train station by my Father who drops me off at Queens University where I’ve been invited to attend a conference on Re-Integration by Prof and now Dean Shadd Maruna. The great and the good where there and I told them about death and self harm in prison and how this had moved me to embark on the road I now travel. My fellow prisoners thought I was nuts to go to ‘Queens’ on my first day out. I didn’t. Later that night I’d been given a laptop and started to explore the world of ‘internet’ denied in prison. I started a blog and hooked it and me up to Twitter. Again, I mentioned Pauline and death in and out of prison and was immediately contacted by a PhD Candidate, now my dear friend Toni Wood. Toni and I communicated via email and letter over the coming months and subsequent home leaves. We discovered we had a mutual yet separate relationship with Pauline and the Howard League for Penal Reform. I joined as soon as I was released and wrote to Frances explaining how we met and what I had achieved thereafter. Was invited to do a talk at Oxford last year and met a person involved with the Howard League and told him my story of meeting Pauline et al way back in 2007. This person was amazed and asked if they could share my tale with more captains and penal reformers. Of course, I agreed. I’ve just submitted PhD proposals to a few Universities and having my first interview next week. How proud would Pauline be of me today?

So, that’s how I know the Howard League for Penal Reform and reformers. I have met many organisation and people over the years involved with criminal justice processes on both sides of the fence. Yes pun was intended there. The problem as I see it is that it’s not reformers or officials that’s the problem. It’s us. We let it happen. We think prison fixes all. We sit back and let others. Frances and many other reformers, academics and government officials have been working in and of prisons for twenty five years and in many cases more. What’s wrong with that last sentence? I’ll come back to it later.

Prison is all encompassing and is the first resort solution to much of what is wrong with society today. Officials in Government have been following the same mantra, be they red or blue, since the end of World War II. Tough, tough, tough is what they be. There is nothing new in their mantra’s. Nothing. The institution of prison is an has been the one true constant since the turn of the century and at fear of repeating myself ‘it’s amazing!’ It has stayed the course as an institution. The trouble is that today, the walls are not as thick as they used to be. Now I am repeating myself “They are more permeable.” It is not hanging offence anymore to come out of prison and tell people how it has affected one. It is no longer a place where everyone is kept in; today it’s much more to do with keeping others out.

Why is that exactly? What is there to hide? After all a spell inside will show a person the error of their ways and they will come back to their relevant communities with head held high, fully reformed. None of this is true. Prison does not reform – therefore there is no need for reformers. Prison by design and definition is there to cause pain and suffering and does not do what it says on the tin. Officials, government and media spin prison and criminal justice processes in such a way that we as a society believe it’s all in the name of public protection. Speaking only from my own experience I went into prison a mess of drink, drugs and a sense of futility of being on this planet. I’d basically given up. I left prison with a BA and a complete raving lunatic. Even though I grew up in Belfast I never really hated. I could never understand it. When I left prison I’d learned to hate. I was not alone in my hatred. Hate is something one is taught is it not? It was not other prisoners (mind you there were a few unsavoury chaps) that taught me to hate – it was the institution of prison. The most amazing discovery, for me, is that it doesn’t matter who is in charge of government who changes policies or who is most vocal about protecting the public. As soon as a person becomes part of the institution they become it. This is not an attack on prison staff in any shape or form. They deliver what they are given. They have been around for a long time. They have seen it all. The trouble is, and getting back to my earlier question about a problem with the sentence is that officials have not. Governors, Civil Servants, Ministers et al come and go. They walk in with all these wonderful ideas and four years later they are gone and the next lot come in and spend another four years trying to undo what the last lot did. At this very moment in time I am witnessing this very process.

Thankfully, I don’t hate anymore, I’m more than comfortable with who I am and what my future holds. The trouble is I am now feared. Just like Frances. What do NOMS, MOJ and DOJ over here have to fear from people who want to make our society safer? Perhaps we might take the a look at the notion of truth. The institution of prison is not a truthful place. In order to be truthful certain officials will have to admit that what goes on in the name of ‘us’ is in fact harmful to us. This would then create a ripple effect of arse wriggling in seats as ministers would have to admit that what has been and is going on costs us all. Therefore there is a necessity to alter our officials. Remember folks they belong to us. Not the other way round. Election time is looming and we need to put bums on seats. But what bums are going to deliver the truth?

The people who work in and of the institution are frightened of the truth getting out (maybe they should have kept me in). This is why Frances has been blocked by the civil servant who has been directed by the arrogance of political will that has nothing to do with truth or betterment of our society. Not long before I left prison there was a mood for change, within the rank and file of prisoners with brains and some of the staff. Thirty years ago some of our ministers where bombing, killing and serving time in prison. They went in with hatred and came out with more. What do we learn from this? Be afraid, be very afraid. The fear of officialdom today is the exposure of how much it costs to produce hate. Is hate not a crime? This might be why Frances has been blocked. This is why Pauline killed herself. This is why I met Toni, Shadd, Phil and many more wonderful people who want to tell the truth to power and by power I mean us because we have the power to remove and replace power that speaks to us and not at us.

I received a text message two days ago from the mother of a young man who killed himself after leaving prison. I have not and cannot reply as I simply do not have the strength to go there; just yet. I will do when I get my breath back. Today I’m going to meet the Headmaster at my old School and think of George Best and “where did it all go wrong” and maybe like Frances I too will be a terror’ via the truth for the rest of my natural life. Indeed, I blame Frances and The Howard League for Penal Reform for my present condition for without meeting them in HMP Brixton in 2007 I would not be where I am today.

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About micsirwin

I'm a Postgraduate student at Queens studying Criminology, writer, poet and lover of integrity, dignity, respect and morality
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